For most of my early childhood — the part of our lives where we live in a world of playground disputes that exists without race — I didn’t know there was a problem of being from a mixed background.. I was me, nothing more nothing less. And no one asked me to be more. But then hairstylists and my sister told me that that cut I wanted wouldn’t work with hair like ours, making it harder to ignore, but I didn’t sweat it.
During my younger years, I assumed my very existence demanded respect, or that I could demand it if it wasn’t freely given but my sister became much more worried about this. My sister thought that I didn’t understand that I was different from my friends at my predominantly white elementary and middle school. So much so that she wrote a piece in the middle school literary magazine about her fear that I wouldn’t know I was black.
Blackness, or the perception of blackness, always felt like something that should have been inherent”
— Mylo Bissell
I don’t remember much of the piece, just the feeling it left me with. My face was hot, my ears felt like they were glowing but the tears welling up in my eyes felt cold, like putting your hands under a faucet too soon. My sister had always been more like a close friend to me but this concept told me there was more distance between us than I realized. It felt like we’d moved into different apartments in different cities. It felt like how my dad didn’t talk to his family. It felt like now I had something to prove.
Blackness, or the perception of blackness, always felt like something that should have been inherent. My dad was black therefore I too was black, but because my skin is lighter shade I was left with a burden of proof. How black was I? Did I choose not to realize this? And if I chose not to realize it, can I live life without the horrors I’d learned of in school? If I could not be black if I could pick some side that wasn’t black, was my hair suddenly manageable? Was my skin suddenly lighter? Did it suddenly make more sense that I was “So well spoken?”
This question haunted me but how was I supposed to be more black?
I became obsessed with hanging out with the other black kids at my school, who I could count on my hand and each I can remember by name. We sat together and I made jokes I thought were supposed to be part of my community. Then I became infatuated with the Harlem Renaissance. It was my saving grace. It was a time period when people didn’t have to prove their blackness, they just lived it. Existing in the shadow of heritage they couldn’t name, culture they’d been ripped from, and oppression they faced daily they were a beacon of hope for me. I have always had a lot of interest in the bravery behind black intellectuals who excelled in crafts that seemed inherently “white” like poetry and writing novels. It seemed like something that was radical having grown up being told by the (mostly white) teachers in my life. It was treated like some great triumph and shock when I and other kids of color got high grades while it was shocking when white kids didn’t.
Suddenly, this choice my sister had for the first time offered me seemed easy. If this was what it meant to be black well then I’ll gladly take that but the glamour of my new identity was soon lost when for the first time in my life I was called a racial slur. A lot of things will live in our memory forever but the first time a hard R n-word rolls off someone’s tongue it lands like a dagger in your chest.